Monday, August 29, 2016

Review of "Not My Father's Son: A Memoir" by Alan Cumming





Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor who's probably best known in America for hosting "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS and playing Eli Gold on "The Good Wife". He's also a very successful stage and movie actor, now happily married to his husband Grant.

Alan's life wasn't always so bright though. In this memoir Alan talks about growing up with a father, Alex Cumming, who was physically, psychologically, and emotionally abusive. The book starts off with a bang as Alan describes a childhood scene where his vicious father yanked him out to the barn, threw him down on a table, and roughly shaved his head with sheep shears. Alan and his brother Tom lived in constant fear of their dad, who perpetually criticized and banged them around.

The impetus to write this book came from Alan's planned 2010 appearance on the British TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?". Celebrities who go on the show have aspects of their ancestry/past revealed, things that are often a surprise to them. (In an American version of this show, for example, Ben Affleck was shocked to learn his ancestors owned slaves.)

In Alan's case, he hoped to find out more about his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling. Tommy survived fighting in World War II but didn't come home when hostilities ended. Instead Tommy became a police officer in Malaya, where he was supposedly killed by an accidental gunshot wound. Tommy left behind his wife, Mary Darling, and four children. The Darlings struggled to get by without Tommy's income or pension. Alan wanted to find out more about this mysterious granddad, as well as other aspects of his own past.

While Alan was filming "Who Do You Think You Are?" - which required traveling around the world with the show's production team - Alex Cumming dropped a bombshell. He revealed that he wasn't Alan's father. Alex claimed that he had caught his wife leaving a bedroom with another man nine months before Alan was born, and that this man was Alan's father. According to Alex he wanted to give Alan a heads-up so the actor wouldn't be blindsided when this news came to light on the TV show.

The book jumps back and forth between Alan's youth and adulthood. In the 'then' sections Alan describes childhood incidents where his father yelled at him, threw him around, hit him, degraded him, embarassed him, and so on. Alan also talks about his father's constant public infidelities, which humiliated his wife and sons. In fact Alex sometimes took Alan along when he was meeting other women. These parts of the book are very disturbing.

In the 'now' sections Alan reveals the residual anxiety he feels from his childhood. He also writes about his acting gigs; professional successes; ex-wife; fears about having children (he has no kids); nervous breakdown; therapist; husband; friends; beloved mother, brother, and granny; parties; dinners; wine; etc. - in short, his life as an adult.

Alan also discusses his reaction to Alex Cumming announcing that he isn't the actor's biological father. Could this explain why Alex was always so cruel and hateful? Or did Alex just make this up to cause Alan more pain? Alan makes sure to find out the truth!

The book is well-written, enlightening, entertaining, and uplifting. It's good to learn that children with awful childhoods can go on to live happy, successful lives.

I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy celebrity memoirs. This is a very good one.

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